Black Easter is a 2021 director-supervised recut of Jim Carroll’s 2020 schlock classic Assassin 33 A.D., a movie I championed at the 2020 Indiana Film Journalists Association‘s meeting for consideration as the runner-up for our group’s Original Vision award. The movie is about Ahmed (Gerardo Davila), an extremist Muslim who forces Jewish scientific whiz-kid named Ram Goldstein (Morgan Roberts) to help him send a team of mercenaries (led by a disillusioned Christian ex-soldier named Brant, played by Danny Boaz) back in time to 33 A.D. to assassinate Jesus Christ (Jason Castro) the night before his crucifixion. The premise is awesome ,and the execution is one of the most soul-fulfilling and shameless cinematic experiences I’ve ever seen on multiple levels. The time-travel shenanigans make Tenet look like a third-grade class play. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Jesus is double-tapped 40 minutes into a two-hour movie that only gets wilder from there.
My review of Assassin was published in July 2020. At the time we felt deep into the pandemic, although looking back we were still early into that dire time. In that piece I concluded: “Poor sound design, strange cuts, lo-fi special effects, odd action-sequence geography and an amateur cast with the talent and, conversely, enthusiasm of a youth group summer-camp troupe. These are all elements that can kill a film or, if captured just right by a talented auteur, only make for a perfect cinematic experience. Although his script certainly pushes some problematic buttons and has a premise ripped straight out of 2002, Carroll’s humor, vision and approach relative to his budget make A33 A.D. 2020’s first schlock classic.
A few months after that, I received an email from Carroll offering a link to Black Easter. I didn’t respond. He pitched the film as such: “Black Easter has all the original elements of Assassin 33 A.D., but we have redesigned the movie to make it easier to follow, less offensive to Muslims, better special effects, less cheesy and faster paced.” My only question is why? Why mess with success? I chose not to watch the film for a while.
But I got curious. What changes exist? Moreover, what does it look like when someone is given a chance to re-cut their unexpected underground hit into what they believe audiences wanted from it? Is it the cinematic equivalent of Best Worst Movie, where Troll 2 star George Hardy just keeps saying “don’t piss on hospitality” to fans over and over again until they tire of him and he finds himself adrift without the fandom that had come to electrify his mundane life?
Black Easter is an inferior version of Assassin. It’s worth saying that up front. It’s basically the same movie with scenes moved around to “improve pacing,” but part of Carroll’s solution is to add a lot of voiceovers by Ram to account for cut exposition, particularly from Brant’s story arc. As a result, the movie is much more focused on Ram, who is pretty funny, but feels less like a faith-based-film that accidentally fell backwards into glory and more like a movie actively trying to cater to the bored action nerds who happened upon the original on Amazon Prime Video and championed it.
One of the things that sets Assassin apart is that it never loses sight of its Christian film roots. At the end of the day it’s still a movie about glorifying Christ and faith. It just happens to be sacrilegious, kinda racist and silly as hell. Black Easter does its best to tone down the faith aspects, but it feels less earnest as a result.
Carroll also tries to tone down the questionable Islam stuff, but that mostly means rejiggering sequences and Ram’s voiceover telling the audience directly not to be mean to Muslims because Ahmed is “an extremist.” The original movie has a similar emphasis, and I’m not sure the new content really fixes the problematic nature of the story. Points for trying, though.
I hope that Carroll doesn’t view Black Easter as the definitive version of the Assassin story. In viewing Black Easter, I did my best to refer back to Assassin on my second screen, contemplating what was changed and shifted around. The largest differences are in the first act; it actually front-loads the Jesus double-tap as something of a pre-credits sequence, which I think dilutes the “Oh my god, are they really doing this?” shock element when the moment itself arrives (in full at the 40-minute mark). Thankfully, Carroll never leaves much of Ram’s lab partner, Simon (Lamar Usher), on the cutting-room floor; Usher’s performance is still the best in the film and his death sequence the funniest in the movie. The ending is changed to move the mid-credits material hinting at an apocalyptic sequence into the denouement of the film proper which, frankly, doesn’t work as well as the more heartwarming Christian feel-good conclusion of the first cut.
All the changes to Black Easter make the movie less earnest, even though they technically make the movie feel a little slicker and more straightforward. It’s hard to shake the sense that it’s a direct response to the audience that discovered and loved Assassin in 2020 with an attempt to optimize it to more mainstream tastes. It’s like Sandy showing up at the end of Grease in leather and bare shoulders to show Danny she’s ready for him. Sure, the moment was iconic, but I always liked Sandy better before she decided to try so hard.
What makes the best schlock / indie / underground films so special is their authenticity. All the money in the world can’t replicate the impact of a unique creative vision. Black Easter contains the ingredients of Assassin, but it isn’t the same movie. It’s a lesser one.